Excerpts Divine Intervention

Excerpts: Divine Intervention: A Memoir

Growing up in East Baltimore:

I was born into a home of financial caution and religious zeal, in an East Baltimore row house one half block from both St. Matthews church and the garish lights of Luby’s Chevrolet.  It seems to me now that those two buildings represent the contradictory tows of my childhood – the good, delineated by an ever present and ponderous religious life versus the temptations of the temporal world so flamboyantly illustrated in that car dealership’s art-deco signage in flashing pink and turquoise. 

My parents were devout. From babyhood my brother and I were immersed in Christianity, attending church and Sunday school plus a widening number of religious activities as we grew.   At home we listened to the “Youth for Christ” daily radio program. Our stereo played the records of Tennessee Ernie Ford or Billy Graham’s George Beverly Shea. “How Great Thou Art” became the background music of my life.  My parents tithed their income, yet often scrimped to make additional contributions to special projects or to meet the church’s financial shortfalls, a frequent topic of dinner conversation.  My mother became an advocate of missions. Little cardboard coin banks for global mission projects appeared with regularity on our kitchen table and into which we were expected to deposit our pennies.  With amazing stamina, she also managed a succession of church fundraising projects: bake sales, bazaars, candy sales, and dinners, all produced with volunteer labor, including, as I grew, mine.  At a young age I was sent door-to-door to solicit orders for bake sales. A timid child, I was uncomfortable ringing the doorbells of strangers; some people were kind, some surly, some doors closed in my face without words.  I began to evaluate outcomes by assessing the houses, skipping those with darkened windows or a bare and cheerless stoop, lying to my mother when asked if I had knocked at every door, certain I was committing a grievous sin. 

Money – or rather scarcity – was the underlying groundwork of my mother’s worldview. She’d been born into a large family and there’d not been money for any but the most basic of needs, thus through her growing years she had often felt beggared and empty-handed.  Her memories contained tales of cautious economies, sparse homemade Christmases and a child’s winter coat handed down through six siblings.  She received her first toothbrush when a public health nurse distributed them in her third-grade classroom.  After attending the local grammar school, she walked a four-mile round trip to Stevensville in order to attend the  high school from which she graduated in a class of twelve in 1931.  She’d been an excellent student but her family had no knowledge of or ability to access further academic opportunities. After graduation she took her youthful dreams to Baltimore, bunking with an older brother’s family in a tiny apartment while attending secretarial school.  I think she saw this as her opportunity to alter life’s course, and her father, in support of her hopes, managed to provide the modest tuition dollars.  She graduated in 1932 in a city bereft of employment opportunity, her dreams of success blighted by America’s Great Depression. Throughout her life she often spoke of her fear at that time, remembering the anxiety she’d felt as she laundered her one nice dress and polished her shoes in preparation to set out each day in search of work.  Her life experiences left her imprinted by austerity, by a fear of doing without, of not having enough, even when life gave her much more. 

My parents met at church.  St. Matthew’s was only three short city blocks from her brother’s apartment, and she began attending services at the invitation of another young woman in the neighborhood.  My dad’s family were established members of the church where he participated in a variety of activities. He was a sharp dresser, gregarious, friendly, generous, liked by everyone, he stepped more lightly through life than she.  My mother was a beautiful woman, though she never truly knew it, always thinking her younger sister was the beauty because of some chance remark their mother made long in the past that still felt like a wound. My dad, like the fathers of most everyone I knew, worked in one of the many factories of blue-collar Baltimore.  It seemed to me that we should not have been less prosperous than those with occupations no better and some worse, though they seemed to have more, perhaps, I thought resentfully as I grew older, by putting less in the collection plate. 

Our furnishings were over large, most of them purchased when my parents married in 1937 and were now out of style – fat upholstered pieces with squat ornate legs lavished with corded fringe, their arms and backs covered with crocheted antimacassars. A mahogany suite overwhelmed the dining room where the table more often functioned as an office for the church, its surface heaped with files, Sunday school projects and mimeographed newsletters.  In the front hall a reproduction of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” was displayed in a three-way lighted frame draped with palm fronds. The space abounded with East Baltimore kitsch, crocheted crosses and towel holders, and plastic placemats worthy of a John Waters movie set.  My mother’s propensity to hold onto old and unused objects rendered our space perpetually overly full and our basement became the catchall space for the endless things being saved “just in case”. The terror of the Depression never left her.

My mother’s frugality and capacity for work was remarkable. She canned much of our winter food supply, sewed and patched our clothing, made dish towels out of flour sacking, and produced unappealing soap from rendered animal fat and lye.  A small crocheted turtle in our bathtub held barbed splinters of soap, allowing every bit to be used before starting a fresh bar. Leftovers from meals, no matter how small the portions, were saved.  If not eaten promptly, I was charged with carrying them to Mrs. Otto, a widow who lived on our street – two meatballs, a portion of stew, a withered chicken leg. Although Mrs. Otto seemed pleased to receive them, I was embarrassed, even at a tender age, to be bearing such poor gifts.

Mrs. Otto collected newspapers and cardboard for resale and did sewing and laundry for many of our neighbors.   Her small cemented backyard sprouted rows of pronged wooden frames on which she stretched lace curtains and tablecloths to bleach and dry in the sun.  Everyone was shocked when upon Mrs. Otto’s death, her son and sister found so much money in her house that they had to carry it to the bank in shopping bags. She had the same disease as my mother. 

I expect that my mother’s frugality brought her a sense of safety. I think that her behaviors also rose from a desire to do things as right as she knew how to do them, to achieve some level of envisioned perfection, to build a life arranged to fit some rigid standard. I think it made her serious and harder than she meant to be.  But the messages I absorbed were clear:  Disaster looms. Be cautious. Follow the rules. The world is not safe. And there will never be.


Moving Downtown

My friend Singy & I moved into apartment 8J in the Marlborough in the summer of 1965: Built in 1907, this ten-story Beaux-Arts building was designed for Baltimore’s wealthiest citizens.  The builder’s introductory brochure states that “the exterior will be of Indiana Limestone, granite, brick and terra cotta with numerous balconies, enriched with wrought iron railings”.  The interior would contain a “handsomely decorated cafe” and a “lobby finished in marble and relief work”, hallways of marble and mosaic, and elevators that were “the highest type of electric machine”. A garden occupied the roof and contained a space where servants could hang laundry to dry.  Each suite consisted of a “foyer, parlor, dining room, kitchen, two to four bed chambers and one to two baths”.  The rooms were high ceilinged, and each unit included a fireplace, beautiful woodwork, and a wall safe.

Though faded and a bit down-on-her-heels, most of the Marlborough’s original construction and layout remained. The lobby and hallways retained their marble and mosaic tile, wide open stairwells at the north and south side of the building were graced with ornate bronze newel posts and railings, the elevator doors were covered in heavy bronze grilles and most apartments retained the original woodwork and fireplace mantels. Our bathroom had a deep porcelain tub in which one could soak up to one’s chin. There was a large pedestal sink and the floor, wall and wainscots were of white tile. Some of the largest apartments had been reconfigured to smaller units.  A wall safe in my bedroom, long plastered shut, set my fanciful nature to wonder about the previous occupants of our unit and what riches might lay forgotten in the Marlborough’s thick stone walls. 

Original residents included many from Baltimore’s mercantile elite, most notably the art collecting sisters Claribel and Etta Cone who occupied apartments numbered 8B and 8D.  The sister’s wealth came from family businesses founded by their father and expanded by their brothers, from which they received generous yearly stipends.

Claribel and Etta travelled to Europe often where they spent time with friends Gertrude and Leo Stein.  Leo, an art critic and collector, introduced the sisters to several artists including Matisse and Picasso.   Their collection, compiled over many trips, included works by both of those artists as well as pieces by Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Courbet and Monet. They also assembled collections of furniture, jewelry, textiles and lace as well as many pieces of African, Asian and Near Eastern Art.  Over the years, the sisters formed a particularly strong relationship with Matisse and continued to purchase his work. The eventual Cone gift bequest to Baltimore Museum of Art included over one thousand works by Matisse, the largest collection of his art in the world.[1]   On December 17, 1930, a year after Claribel’s untimely death, Matisse visited Etta, his friend and patron, at her Marlborough apartment. 

 Thirty-six years later, I stood at my apartment door looking down the marble hallway to the old Cone apartments.  Matisse in this building! He had ridden in the elevator just outside my door, walked down this very hall!  I longed to conger up that past event, a shadow memory perhaps still present in these walls, a tesseract connection that would bypass distance as though Matisse was a mere moment from now.

Current occupants of the Marlborough spanned a wide range of ages and lifestyles. There was a klatch of older women with blue-rinsed permanent waved hair who sat each afternoon in the lobby as they might have for decades. There were numerous students, a smattering of families, retirees, and singles like me who went off to work each day.

Singy and I spent our first day in the Marlborough happily arranging our new space. While visiting the drugstore on the lower level we ran into Van Smith, a guy I knew from class. Van invited us to a party that evening, and his apartment (8C) turned out to be just around the corner.

 “A bunch of us usually get together here most evenings” said Van in his charming Southern drawl.  “You know, we just hang out, work on school projects and listen to music.  Y’all are welcome to join us any time.” Singy and I did join them several times, but she was not always around.  As a result, I found myself spending most evenings with Van and a growing number of new friends at apartment 8C.  It was essentially everyone’s living room, a gathering spot, the door never locked.

One evening a plump man I’d not met before entered the foyer.  He wore dark slacks and a white open-collared shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and he shuffled across the foyer in worn loafers that seemed a size too big. He carried a raincoat over his right forearm in a stance reminiscent of a mink-draped vintage Hollywood actress posing on the red carpet.  

“Honey, I’m home” he bellowed loudly.  “A horrible day! My feet are killing me!”

He stopped in the doorway and lounged against the frame before launching into a monologue mocking the conversations and complaints of the suburban housewives who had been his salon clients that day. He altered his voice and pose to delineate each new speaker and the topics covered neighborhood gossip, diets and weight gain, husbands, children, mothers-in-laws and how “you can’t get good help anymore”.  He followed up with client comments made directly to him:

“Glenn honey, I’m not sure about the color.  Maybe make it a bit more blond? “

I want lots of teasing, Glenn. Some height does me wonders; don’t you agree?”

“Glenn let’s add more frosting. And more spray, definitely more spray!  Be a darling.”

“Agggghhhhhh!  Bitches!” he exclaimed as he concluded his performance.

Van laughed. “Oh, stop it. Such drama. Did you bring the grass?”

“See! See?  More evidence! Everybody wants something from me!”

He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and handed it to Van, as he peered down at me as I sat on the floor with my sketch pad.

“And who are you?”

“That’s Janet” said Van before I could answer. “She’s our new neighbor.”

“Pretty little thing” he replied distractedly, and then addressed me directly “But honey, we have to do something with your hair.”

Van opened the bag which I’d assumed was marijuana. He pulled a pack of cigarette papers from his pocket, rolled a joint, took a drag and passed it to Glenn. Glenn took a drag and nodded questioningly to me.  I’d never smoked more than a Winston cigarette. I shook my head. 

“What a serious little thing you are” Glenn said as he exhaled. “Life is for enjoying! You shouldn’t say no too quickly, because you might miss out on something great.  It’s prime grass. You’d love it.”

Who was this man?  I soon learned that his name was Glenn Milstead, a hairstylist from Towson; a funny sharp-witted standup comedian, who could make you laugh so hard you’d wet your pants. He could be exasperating, dramatic, unreasonable and light-fingered but also funny, good-hearted and generous, and he often gave me excellent advice.